25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (11 November 2018)
JoAnn A. Post
As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
“He wasn’t on our radar.”
“He wasn’t deemed a threat.”
How often have we heard those words after yet another tragedy?
But in Pittsburgh and Jefferson, Tallahassee and Thousand Oaks, without warning or explanation, these “under the radar” individuals burst into our lives in a hail of bullets. I’m not blaming anyone for this inability to identify and stop those bent on destruction. Our law enforcement agencies and officers cannot have their eyes on every twisted Facebook post, every troubled home, every lone wolf. And, sadly, law enforcement officers are harmed more often than ordinary citizens like us.
But those twisted, troubled, isolated individuals are watching. Their eyes are on us. Especially if we represent something they hate. If we are black. Or Jewish. Or female. Or young. Or Muslim. Or trans. Or simply breathing air they think we don’t deserve to breathe.
Where are our eyes? We are so easily distracted, whiplashed by competing demands for the latest, the lewdest, for the opinion that confirms our own. This week our eyes were on the proudly powerful—the contemporary scribes, for whom Jesus had so little love. Governors and senators, representatives and attorneys general. Our eyes are on the people who grab the headlines, grab the show, grab the mic, grab the throat.
We are all watching. Or being watched. And all of us are frightened.
Even Jesus plays the voyeur today, camping out in the temple to admire the fashions and evaluate the philanthropy of other temple goers. His first snide aside was to his disciples about the scribes—well-educated men with steady hands, who copied the words of the rabbis onto parchment. Their work of listening and recording was painstaking, and critical to the life of the temple. That some of them let that critical function go to their heads is no surprise. They weren’t all strutting buffoons. But some of them were. And Jesus found them laughable.
When Jesus turns his eyes and attention from the runway where the scribes strut their stuff, our eyes and attention are slow to follow. We like shiny things.
It seems the temple offering was a spectator sport, as Jesus grabbed a seat in the bleachers near the offering box to observe. It would be as if we all turned and watched what our neighbors put in our offering plate—admiring the soft cashmere cash, sneering at the clinking coins.
But we are still watching the scribes, expecting Jesus to be catty, so when Mark writes about the wealthy who put in large sums and the poor who put in little, we’re waiting for a smart remark. “Look at those rich people, showing off.” But there is no snark in Jesus’ voice. He places no moral judgement on either rich or poor.
After all, the temple relied on the generosity of those with means, as do we. Wealth is not inherently good or evil; neither is poverty. Whether we enjoy surplus or suffer scarcity, it does not reflect on our moral character. The wealthy should be generous. We know that. And the poor?
Since, next week, we will be receiving pledges of financial support for our ministries, this would be an apt opportunity to distract you with a brief commercial about our ministries, reminding you to be generous with our work here. But I won’t do that. You already know that. I trust us all to be generous, whether the sum itself is large or small.
Because important as the offering box was in the first century and is today, that’s not where our attention is to linger. Our eyes are intended to linger where Jesus’ do.
Jesus isn’t a gerbil with a five-second attention span as most of us are. He was only momentarily distracted by the long-robed scribes and the large offerings of the wealthy. Instead, he was completely taken with the woman no one else noticed—a poor widow whose offering was proportionally more than all the tithes of all the wealthy combined. An offering that left her bereft.
Why would she do that? How would she live? What does this mean?
It means that, like Jesus, we are to notice those who are invisible to the rest of the world.
At 11:00 this morning, no matter what we are doing, we will pause to ring bells. With houses of worship from coast to coast, we will notice a moment that mostly goes forgotten. 100 years ago, at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, the War to End All Wars came to an end. But the price of peace was high—16 million dead, 23 million wounded, the map of Europe completely redrawn. It seemed, at that holy moment, that we had learned a lesson, that human life is of more value than military might.
But we did not. Only 20 years later, we did it again. Tearing at one another with tooth and claw, hammers and tongs. Forgetting the price of war, the preciousness of peace. So today we notice the price of peace, if only for a moment.
Like you, the earth under me trembled on Wednesday when news of another, tragically named, “soft” shooting rocked the news. Stories of extraordinary courage have emerged from that event. Anguished cries of grief still echo in our ears. And while we pause to remember the dead and the grieving, there is another who caught my eye.
The gunman had a mother. A mother with whom he lived. A mother with whom he fought. A mother who loved him.
I cannot imagine her sorrow. The child whom she loved slaughtered the much-loved children of other mothers. Though I have no proof of this, I know from other such tragedies that her life is now in danger. That some, in the name of justice, will attempt to harm her. Who will watch over her, this nameless widow who gave her whole life for a child who betrayed her?
Most often we attend to Jesus’ words. Translating and teasing them apart for meaning in our lives. I do it all the time—it is my life’s work.
But today we follow Jesus’ eyes. We notice what he notices, we pay attention to his attention, to the people in the shadows who pull at his heart and occupy this thoughts. The invisible poor who drove his ministry and, ultimately, got him nailed to a cross.
What would happen if, only for a moment, we refused to be lured into the dark oozing hole of hatred? If we resisted the “look over there” distractions, the manufactured crises that demonize others and disempower us?
What if we looked where Jesus looks. At the wounded of war and the keepers of peace. At the people who are little more than punching bags for pundits and politicians. At children who are troubled, and the parents who love them. At the widow, and the orphan, the homeless and the hungry. At the innocent victims of violence, and the policies that could protect them?
In a moment we will sing a hymn that, at first glance, will seem apropos of nothing we have discussed here today. (“For the fruit of all creation,” ELW 679) But I beg you to notice, notice the words. Words that draw our attention away from the violence and the pronouncements and the daily pressure to perform.
We will sing of simple things that sustain us: plowing, sowing, reaping, silent growth while we are sleeping.
We will give thanks for a fair wage, a kind hand, a shared meal.
And in the verse I sang to my daughters at bedtime when they were small we will notice unseen gifts: “For the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us, most of all that love has found us . . .”
We see what Jesus sees. We notice those whom Jesus notices. We watch. We wonder. We wait. And even through our tears and fear, we sing.